In last week's cover story (see "Fold or Float") I outlined what the Portland Press Herald has to do to survive — either under existing ownership or somebody new. It started with attracting and keeping readers. The task includes dreaming up new ideas and experimenting with them, to see what will work as a business model that can support good, solid journalism.
Any effort at survival should take advantage of the ample brainpower and ability already on staff — ideally, by naming the sharpest tools in the shed to what we'll call the Survival Committee. Here are the top five candidates, and a few ideas for a strong supporting cast.
• DIETER BRADBURY, who was briefly the paper's "online reporter" and handled video and audio with competence, if not a gift. With practice, he'd get better. With support from co-workers, the passable stuff he did in his abortive stint (before staffing cuts eliminated his position and sent him back to writing for print) would actually get some traction.
• JUSTIN ELLIS, the only person in the newsroom who shows any evidence of knowing how to blog or use the Web. He's also the only one who appears to have actually met anyone under the age of 35, much less imagined that they might read his newspaper.
• DEIRDRE FLEMING, the former outdoors reporter who now writes for the corporate-speak-renamed "How We Live" beat. She not only spent a ton of time actually in the out-of-doors while reporting, but found ways to sneak public policy into recreation pieces, and vice-versa, which made her pieces about waterways, in particular, must-reads.
• DAVID HENCH, a veteran cops reporter who has gotten some of the best scoops the paper has ever had, including jailhouse interviews with all manner of accused criminals, and even a few confessions. He's been too distracted lately, which has hurt some of his work (his initial response was to take the Portland Police Department at its word that it was a good idea to buy Tasers with federal stimulus money, but he soon came to his senses and started probing deeper), but his connections remain solid enough for him to really get into the grit of this city.
• TUX TURKEL, a longtime business and public-affairs reporter who appears not only to remember most of what anyone has ever told him, but to keep a list of interesting stories that develop over time and need to be checked in on periodically. Witness, as just one example, his close coverage of Portland's television-news market, which can be excused for its intermittency by its clarity and sense of history, even in short briefs.
Those five will need some solid help in other aspects of news coverage and presentation. And the Press Herald has those handy, too. Gregory Rec is one of the best still photographers in Maine (we'd love to see his picture-making eye applied to video); when he's both in high dudgeon and thinking straight, Bill Nemitz can weave great columns; and the Web-development crew (specifically Suzi Piker and Jeff Woodbury) can organize and lay out information online really well, as evidenced on the rare occasions when they've been allowed to break the boring-as-all-hell format of MaineToday.com.
The Survival Committee's first move should be to get rid of editor Jeannine Guttman, for the simple reason that she regularly — and publicly — fails to understand what readers want (see "Gender Confusion," February 15, 2008, by Jeff Inglis).
The paper can save itself, but only if smart, capable people are allowed to step forward and try bold ideas. Some of those experiments will fail, but some will succeed. And time's running out.